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Covering the Shame of Your Parents

Category Articles
Date February 13, 2009

But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. (Genesis 9:23).

Noah was a righteous man, called by God to bring the animals into the ark, along with his wife, three sons and their wives, in order to preserve the creation after God destroyed it through the great flood. Though righteous, Noah still had a serious problem with sin, and the way his sons handled it speaks volumes, not only about them but also about you, how you are to cover the shame of your parents. After the waters had resided, Noah commenced farming and grew a vineyard. After harvesting the grapes he made wine, and imbibed a bit too much. The result was that the old man was stone drunk. Apparently in the revelry of drunkenness Noah stripped naked. Ham entered Noah’s tent and found him both drunk and naked. Ham saw this as a golden opportunity to make fun of the old man. I can hear it now, ‘Hey, Shem and Japheth, come see our righteous and godly father now. He is three sheets to the wind and stark naked. This is just too good to pass up.’ But we are told that Shem and Japheth had a very different response. They took a garment, laying it upon their shoulders, walking in backwards so as to not see Noah is his drunkenness and nakedness, then using it to cover their father. Later, when Noah is sober, he predicts good things for Shem and Japheth and bad things for Ham, saying that he will serve his brothers all his days. Pro-slavery preachers in the 19th century cited this as a proof text for slavery but this is not Noah’s intent. He is not prophesying slavery for Ham, rather he is predicting, due to the godless character of his heart, that he will fall further and further into sin, which itself enslaves.

Each of you reading this has parents. Some are still alive but others have left this world. Furthermore, some of you, like me, had the privilege of being reared by wonderful parents in a loving, stable home; but some of you suffered the embarrassment of parental infidelity, divorce, alcoholism, financial impropriety, jail sentences, psychosis, and more. Paul the Apostle commands us to honour our fathers and mothers which is the first commandment with a promise, that we may live long on the earth, that it may go well with us. What does it mean to honour your parents? What does it mean to honour parents who have terribly hurt you, embarrassed you, brought great suffering to you? How can you cover the nakedness of your parents who have in fact brought shame to you and your siblings?

To honour your parents means to be courteous to them (from the Latin cor which means heart, do it from the heart). It means to defer to them. As grown children, you are no longer required by God to obey them, but surely you should listen to their counsel, surely you should give them the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise in your family. It means you always show kindness to them. You are to be aware of their needs and you are to move toward them, helping them with their material, spiritual, financial, emotional, physical needs. It means you give them respect simply because they are your parents, even if they have embarrassed or violated you. It means you show reverence to them. You will always be their child and there should always be a sense of subordination to them, even if you become their primary care giver. It means that even in senility you speak kindly to them and about them.

But what if your parents are difficult? What if they have hurt you severely? What if a parent has brought great hardship to you and your siblings? How should you cover her shame? Consider the actions of Shem and Japheth. Here’s what they did not do. They did not concur with Ham’s mockery. They did not deny their father’s shameful behaviour. There is no indication they laughed or mentioned his sinful behaviour to others. They took no pleasure in what happened. Then, here’s what they did do. They acted quickly to override Ham’s shameful mockery of their father. They moved rapidly to cover his nakedness. They honoured their father’s person and position, even though his actions were reprehensible. They took the opportunity to affirm their father where they could, while laying aside those things they could not affirm. They took steps to help him without drawing attention to his problem, without broadcasting it beyond the family circle, beyond those who could do something about it.

Have your parents brought shame and suffering to you or your siblings? Through the grace of a loving Saviour who died for you, who knows your sin, but who nonetheless, is not ashamed to call you his brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11) you can have the grace to forgive, love, and cover the shame of your parents. You can do this because you are united to the One who suffered the shame of separation from his father so that you may have the glory of his presence forever. But second, more specifically, you can do what Shem and Japheth did. Call it what it is. Don’t try to minimize or rewrite the narrative of their shame. Admit what they did. Don’t run from it. And do not laugh at them or scoff at their failures. You could do the same thing. Resist the temptation to be the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son, who was consumed with self-righteousness. Refuse the temptation to speak about the shame of your parents beyond the range of those who can help with the problem. What can be gained by such gossip? Honour the position and personhood of your parent. After all, he brought you into the world and his position, though his behaviour has been shameful, warrants your respect and reverence. Think on the good things your parent did, how he did teach you, provide for you; and choose to speak often of these to your siblings and others who know him. Choose to speak only of the negative things when you are in the process of addressing them. Forgive her for how she has brought hardship on you and your family. Release her of the debt she owes you, always remembering how God in Christ has forgiven you a much greater debt against him. And take specific steps to help your parent overcome the sinful addiction or action. This is difficult. The natural tendency is to be done with him, to move on to other things, like rearing your own children, keeping up with your profession or career. But surely covering your parent’s shame means constructive help, going the extra mile in his rehabilitation.

But what if that parent is dead? Then what? You can still honour her memory by thinking on the good times, the good things you learned, refusing to ‘go there’ with your siblings or other family members. What can be gained by such conversation? This alone will bring healing to your soul for the shameful nakedness of those who brought you into the world.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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